Free Software for the SMB

Memo to small business owners: If you are spending a fortune on software to run your business, you’ll be interested to know you may be able to get almost everything you need for free.

With more than 25.8 million small businesses currently in the U.S. and 671,000 new companies getting started every year, purveyors of free business software have lots of potential customers to attract. Open source vendors provide a wide collection of free software.

No doubt you already know about the free OpenOffice productivity suite. It contains applications similar to the core products that Microsoft bundles in its Office Suite. Compatibility is an issue for some users; however, OpenOffice lets the user save spreadsheets, word documents, database files and graphic presentations in a transferable format for use in the Microsoft applications your customers use.

Even Microsoft provides free business applications that give small business users some breathing space with their startup budgets. Whether you look to Microsoft or open source vendors, you will find products for practically every business task.

“It’s definitely possible to run an entire small business on nothing but free applications. Open source software adoption has ramped up within the enterprise space, so the spectrum of features and functionality caters to the business issues of organizations of all sizes,” Bryan Cheung, CEO of, told TechNewsWorld. “Hence, small businesses will find that the options available to them are quite impressive and oftentimes can even exceed their needs.”

Limitations Apply

If a business is so inclined, it can get most of the software it needs for free. However, free software users need to look before they leap.

“The key is looking at free and open source software that comes with solid support. This adds a cost component, but it’s very inexpensive compared to alternatives,” Barry Klawans, Open Solutions Alliance board member and Chief Technical Officer of JasperSoft, told TechNewsWorld.

He agrees that it is definitely possible to run an entire small business on nothing but free applications. However, it requires good IT managers who are involved in the free and open source software communities and who look to project sponsors for good support, he noted.

Free Support Helps

Without support or a senior IT manager familiar with free software, deploying these packages can be difficult, Klawans cautioned. That’s where the value of a community comes in.

“Thousands of developers are on hand and passionate about the software and are there to collaborate and troubleshoot in real-time,” he said.

Also, project sponsors and open source vendors usually work together to make sure users get exactly what they need, Klawans added. This includes interoperability among all these solutions, smooth deployments and better documentation.

Flavors and Strings Attached

While small business owners will have no trouble finding free software, they may find drawbacks to choices they make. Not all free software delivers the way a business user might expect.

“It is important for small businesses to know that free applications come in many flavors, and not all of them are truly free,” Jay Hallberg, cofounder and vice president of marketing for Spiceworks, told TechNewsWorld.

First, ad-supported applications are free to the business user in exchange for allowing advertisers to show ads. Another class of free applications relies on an open source model. These applications are usually created by a community of software engineers using standard and free software development tools, Jallberg explained.

Such software often requires users to customize them to meet their own specific needs. This requires investment in technical resources to handle the customization, training and the ongoing support and maintenance costs of the application.

“As a result, open source applications usually aren’t ideal for smaller businesses unless they have resources to handle these issues,” said Hallberg.

User Beware

Small business owners have to watch out for so-called free applications that are not really free for long. For example, some software companies tout free versions of their software that feature only limited usability. In order to get something that can be relied upon in the long term, the user has to buy the upgrade.

“But small businesses should read the fine print. The free use of the application is usually a hook to get people to buy,” Hallberg warned.

For instance, you can use a free version of a backup software package, but after 30 days the user begins being charged if he or she does not cancel. In some cases, the business can only use an application for free if it has two employees.

“These are usually sales gimmicks rather than truly free applications a business can use on an ongoing basis,” Hallberg said.

What’s Out There

Here is a rundown on some of the free business software small businesses have recommended to TechNewsWorld. These products run on the Windows platform. Linux distributions offer dozens of free business programs for all aspects of running a business. The Web services run on all applications.

  • Accounting: Microsoft Office Accounting Express 2007 is free accounting software that seamlessly integrates with Microsoft Office products, eBay, PayPal, ADP and other online services.
  • E-mail Encryption: Kryptiva offers free components that integrate into users’ existing e-mail applications to provide encryption and authentication features.
  • Time Sheet Management:Journyx Timesheet is a time sheet and expense management solution that enables organizations to automate management of employee time and expenses for project control, customer invoicing and payroll processing.
  • Business Tools: Liferay Portal provides a framework and over 60 tools an organization can use as a base for its business needs. Liferay comes with tools out of the box and has pioneered user interface features that mimic the look, feel and logic of a typical desktop.
  • Business Cards: VistaPrint provides online selection and ordering of free business cards. VistaPrint aggregates printing orders from so many customers that it can spread costs across thousands of orders to enable the company to offer the business cards for free, according to Trynka Shineman, VistaPrint’s senior vice president of North American marketing.
  • Search Engine Optimization: HitTail is a marketing tool that analyses the search traffic coming into a site and then pulls out the keywords that show the most promise to drive more traffic in the future. This free service can boost a small business’s search rank.
  • Organizational Charts: OrgPlus Live offers a limited free trial service that will soon be fully free. The service allows businesses to generate an organizational chart with 30 boxes for free.
  • Domain name and e-mail: Microsoft’s provides a free Web site with domain name and e-mail accounts designed to help small businesses get online, attract new customers and generate repeat business.
  • Systems Management and IT Management: Spiceworks IT Desktop provides a free application that combines network inventory, help desk, reporting, monitoring and troubleshooting in a single interface designed for IT teams in small and medium businesses.

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